You were born in Austria, how did you end up in Paris?
When I was 19 and I was a law student in Vienna and I took the tram every morning to go to university. A woman saw me on the tram and asked if I had thought about being a model? I soon started working in Vienna and then a scout from Paris came over and was interested in me. He brought me to Paris and I only planned to stay for the summer and return to school in the autumn but I’m still here.
You met Helmut Newton quite early on in your career. How did that happen?
Two weeks after I arrived in Paris, I met Helmut. At the time he was looking for girls for the Vogue, Haute Couture edition. The casting was enormous, I was standing with 100 girls and all of sudden Helmut came out and made a small gesture and pulled me out of the line. He asked me if I would like to work for French Vogue but also if I would like to shoot some nudes.
What did you say when he asked you pose nude?
I have to admit that I immediately said yes. Helmut was a well-respected photographer and I was very fond of his work. All his nudes have power. He searched for strong women that would not allow themselves to be manipulated by men. Do you remember the double page spread in French Vogue, where there are four girls posing in couture and the next image shows us in the same position undressed? The message was that we remain just as powerful with clothing as without. You have to remember that these images were taken in the 80’s during the liberation of women. Helmut’s nudes were not meant to seduce in a passive way but to attract people to the new independent female.
I remember an image of you nude in front of a mirror; Helmut is behind the camera and June sitting to right looking rather bored.
That is a typical nude session with Helmut. His wife June would always be there and as a woman that made you feel very comfortable. When you’re 19, away from home and just developing self-confidence it’s important to be in a safe environment and they provided that.
I have always wondered what June was thinking in that image.
It looks like she was just siting there but she was a big part of everything that Helmut did. For him, June was ‘the’ woman. She was his wife, his lover and his mother. She was everything. She had a lot of influence on his work, always observing, making suggestions and being a part of the process. I think they had the perfect relationship; they met in Australia when they were very young and loved each other deeply until the end of Helmut’s life.
Looking back at that time in your life, how did these experiences shape you?I didn’t decide to become a model. It kind of just fell from the sky. In the past things have always been too easy for me. I feel very blessed to have had this fantastic life but now I am facing the most difficult period. I am getting divorced and things are a little complicated. But I think this is an important life lesson for me, I need something that will challenge me.
SYLVIA GOBBEL is wearing a Triple Crêpe Georgette Wool Tuxedo suit from PEET DULLAERT.
PHOTOGRAPHY Wikkie Hermkens - STYLING Sonny Groo - TEXT Savi Kuruppu